Monday, October 13, 2014
Articulation Versus Understanding
During a brief workshop in London a couple of weeks ago, some students and I got to an understanding that I have been mulling over for a long time, trying to articulate. Since this conversation, I have been discovering even more within it. To paraphrase the whole length of our exchange, the student and I eventually came to this conclusion:
Just because we can articulate something doesn't mean we understand it.
This is powerful for people who identify as "word people". I, for one, have not only valued in myself, but been valued for my ability to be articulate. I related to one student a story of an exchange I had with one of my brothers recently.
He told me that it's hard for him to express his feelings, something I've always known. Then he had the courage to go even further forward and say that he is intimidated by talking to me in particular about what he is feeling because I am so expressive and so immediately able, or so it seems, to articulate what I am feeling. He said this has a benefit and a detriment, often in the same conversation:
1. He feels intimidated and stumbles and feels self-conscious and then
2. I reflect back what he said, articulating what he's been feeling and just spent a half hour trying to explain in one sentence.
He says this is helpful - and also kind of a weird curse.
What the student and I came to understand is more about the "weird curse" aspect of it for us, the articulators, so to speak. She and I both related that we felt our being able to articulate things has mostly been beneficial, but also serves the purpose of making others believe we are ok, that because we know what is going on, we don't need any help. Before this exchange, and since, I have had endless conversations with friends who know they have struggled with "outsmarting" therapists and themselves when it comes to being articulate.
But how does this relate to memoir? After all, as Bill Roorbach points out in his wonderful book on personal stories, Writing Life Stories, therapy is not the same as memoir, though they can come awfully close. How we tell our story - which is very often related to how we articulate it: each theme, as well as each word - helps the reader to feel safe, to feel as if they are on a well-written journey. But how often have you finished a well-written - or, at least, clearly written and good-selling - memoir only to feel that it was sort of "surface level"?
I feel this way a bit with Wild, by Cheryl Strayed for instance. It isn't that I don't think she has deep understanding - just read her Letters to Sugar to know her level of insight, and not just articulation. However, I do think that publishers, especially big houses, favor articulation over understanding. They would rather have a story well-told than actually revealing.
But for me, the power of story - whether told in a relationship to a lover or friend, in a therapeutic setting or in a piece of writing intended for external audience - comes largely from surprise, and surprise happens when we are vulnerable. When we are least expecting it. Because memoir is about us and our lives, we have to be open to discovering new ways in, and we cannot do that unless we are willing to let go of the - often articulate, if not over-articulated - tales we have been telling all along.
So for me this is also the power of the process of writing memoir - discovering our stories, the stories under the stories, and being open to them changing, to our understanding changing. If we enter into writing simply to reaffirm what we already know, to have others applaud our ability to be articulate, we get into trouble quickly. In fact, I imagine this could be one of the painful underbellies of being a best-selling author - perhaps their "less articulate" (and possibly more understanding) brothers, as well as readers, lovers and even therapists, feel that somehow they pale in comparison as human beings.
My students tend to favor their peers who articulate beautifully.
I myself am wary when I encounter another person who is powerfully articulate: myself included.
It's not that I doubt their skills, or the value of their skills. It's just that more and more I know there is more to understanding than expression. Sometimes what we can feel but can't say runs deeper than what we can explain. This conundrum is something all good writing can hold, and in the case of memoir, a life and writing about that life that has been able to be lived without constant comprehension is essential.